Somewhere in Time

10/15/2009

Somewhere in Time,” a movie starring the late Christopher Reeve, takes place in the farthest reaches of northern Michigan, on an island you can only get to by boat. The movie depicts a bygone era (1912) and was filmed at one of our favorite Michigan boating destinations, Mackinac Island and the beautiful Grand Hotel, which was first opened in 1887. Even today, the island’s residents have carefully preserved the charm and uniqueness of the turn of the 20th century. Much like our favorite Michigan port, we recently had the opportunity to discover that Tangier Island, Maryland, has a similar distinctive character, in that it has not changed much in the last 100 years. The only way to make it to this Eastern Shore Island is by boat or small plane, making its draw that much more compelling. Immediately upon entering the harbor we realized we were entering another “Somewhere in Time” moment.

Lisa and I left Solomons, Maryland, for a seven-day journey to an anchorage on the south side of the Potomac River for one night, Tangier Island, Virginia, for another and eventually on to an MTOA (Marine Trawlers Owners Association) Rendezvous in Crisfield, Maryland, for four days. We left Solomons on a Saturday for the first leg of our adventure, heading south, for a 30-mile trip on the Chesapeake Bay. Prior to our departure, we had been following the weather closely, we monitored the wind and waves and luckily the seven-foot waves on the bay had subsided to two-foot following seas by the time we departed. Our first night’s destination was Smith Point on the south side of the Potomac River, up into the Little Wicomico River.

Most of the travel guides gloss over the Little Wicomico River because of its narrow entrance, made even more difficult to enter with north winds, high seas, and shallow water. However, we found that once we navigated through the narrow man-made channel’s entrance and maneuvered past a dozen congregating fishing boats and one-foot sand bars we found ourselves sequestered inside a very well protected body of water. After meandering down into Little Wicomico River we found a perfect anchorage at Flood Point, with 360 degrees of swing protection, in seven feet of water. We spent an enjoyable evening in this protected cove that was as still as a small inland lake on a windless night. It was the calmest night at anchor we’d had in a long time, making the obstacles of shallow water, fishermen, and a narrow channel only a minor drawback.

With the town of Tangier Island as a backdrop you can see a crab boat returning to port with a full load of crab cages.
Looking across the channel at Tangier Island you have a great view of the crab sheds, docks and boats

After a casual morning at anchor we retraced our path out of the Little Wicomico River to the Chesapeake Bay, to proceed on to Tangier Island. Once back into the Bay we only had a 13-mile easterly boat ride to Tangier Island. We’d heard and read a great deal about this historical treasure and were excited to finally be making our way there. Unfortunately, when we stuck our nose out into the Bay the waters were not as friendly as we’d left them the day before. Granted we only had a short one-and-a-half hour trip ahead but the seas were relentless as they pounded on our beam, making for a very uncomfortable cruise. Instead of making a direct path to Tangier Island we tacked south, letting the following seas cushion the ride. Once we’d traversed an extra five miles out of our straight navigation path we turned 45 degrees back into the oncoming waves, alleviating the uncomfortable beam seas. It took an extra 40 minutes but by the time we entered the Tangier Island channel the seas had finally laid down, letting us enjoy a calm ride into the channel.

Our slip was not immediately available when we arrived so we took a short trip further up the channel where we found ourselves surrounded on both sides by crabbing boats and sheds, crab processing platforms and the small low-lying waterman town on the edge of the harbor. First settled in 1686, Tangier Island remains a town of about 600 people who make their living primarily from crabbing. The Island is big enough to have a small marina but we were soon to find out that the Island was small enough not to have all the tourist trappings, thereby maintaining its distinctive character.

Parks Marina sits at the base of town overlooking the crabbing fleet.

We were greeted at Parks Marina by the owner, Milton Parks, a gracious man who helped secure our boat. He was more than willing to help with information and even offered us a ride around the Island on his cart, the main source of transportation on this remote island. Milton asked Lisa, “Honey do you really like living on your boat?” and seemed as interested in us as we were in him and his unique hometown. Milton had just returned from church when we arrived and was still dressed in his Sunday best, so I commented to him that he was the best-dressed harbormaster we’d ever met. We found that Milton’s gracious hospitality was not the exception; everyone on the island mirrored his warmth.

Milton Parks, owner and harbormaster of Parks Marina, sharing his island knowledge with me.

Because Tangier Island dates back over 300 years and has a limited amount of real estate, the island’s lanes, roads, and bridges are more like asphalt-covered bike paths with most of the island being marshland. There are only three strips of land, connected by small bridges, high enough to support the island houses. Lisa and I found it very easy to walk the entire island, which served as a double benefit of exercise and self-guided tour. Once we got past the shore area, which was lined with stacks of crab pots and moored boats, we came to the crossroads of the very small commercial district. Here we found several restaurants, a grocery store, church, and a few crab-related souvenir stores. So if you’re into bigger city amenities and wouldn’t appreciate this island’s  ”Somewhere in Time” appeal you might want to just pass on by.

The Muddy Toes Library, from the outside, looks more like your average storage shed

Our walk took us to the southernmost inhabited part of the island where we found the Muddy Toes Library. The library is not your typical brick and mortar type but is more the size of a six by ten shed that houses a small book exchange. The walls are lined with both hard and soft backed books stacked from floor to ceiling, covering every imaginable topic and many current, popular authors, all free for the taking. It’s customary to leave books when you take books, but not necessary. We were surprised that this little island had the largest selection of books that we’ve come across while boating and that’s saying a lot because most marinas have similar exchanges. These are the types of little surprises we love to find and in this case we came away with five relatively new books to read, while lightening our boatload by dropping three off the next day.

 

 

 

Lisa is having a hard time trying to narrow her selection at the Muddy Toes Library. I’m dressed in my official tourist t-shirt at one of the footbridges needed to traverse the marsh to the western outside area of town.

My mother would love this place, not because of the remote location, the historical crab-related heritage, or the 300-plus year lineage of the people living on the island, but because of the feline population. Lisa and I couldn’t help but notice how many cats were on the island. It seemed there were three or four around every corner or between yards playing tag with each other. We asked Milton, our harbormaster, about this and he volunteered that he thought there were about 1,200 cats on the island. Milton said he alone spends about $75 a week on cat food so it was no surprise when we noticed six cats following him around the docks at feeding time.

Here’s a photo of a typical Island electric cart modified, Tangier style, for night driving.

When we arrived at Tangier Island it was Sunday and therefore not a busy crabbing day. During a workday the watermen first make their way to town on their electric carts, hop into their skiffs, and navigate across the channel to their work sheds – most are located on the opposite side of the channel. It’s here they prepare their crabbing boats before they head out into the Chesapeake Bay or Tangier Sound to work the rich crab-pot fields, one of the best in the United States. Watermen are hard workers, working long hours in all types of weather, and we were surprised to find out how early they start their workdays. We heard the first waterman start up his engines at 2:30 in the morning. Now that’s what I call and early bird!

Watermen use a distinctively colored and shaped crab-pot buoy to help identify their submersed crab pots when out on the water.

Lisa and I thought we’d have a great night’s sleep on Sunday, dreaming about our time on Tangier Island and everything crab. Unfortunately, we had several water-related interruptions throughout the night and it all started as soon as our heads hit the pillows. A fish of unknown origin decided it wanted to feed next to our port window for an hour or more. It would splash out of the water, slap its tail against Kismet’s hull; all in an effort to find its meal and satisfy its appetite. Then the watermen started moving out around 2:30 a.m. and this continued on for at least another hour-and-a-half. The fish is one thing we could’ve done without, but that night we gained a new respect for the watermen’s work ethic. By witnessing first hand what they have to go through very early in the morning made us appreciate the value of their catch that much more.

The crab cakes Lisa and I had at the Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant were the best we’ve had!

Milton helped us off the next morning and asked us to return. We promised we would. We hope when we do return the island will still hold the charm it radiates today. As we pulled away from the dock he smiled and asked Lisa one more time,